Press Club of New Orleans Celebrates 61st Annual Excellence in Journalism Awards

Press Club of New Orleans Celebrates 61st Annual Excellence in Journalism Awards

By Nicholas Hamburger

The Press Club of New Orleans celebrated its 61st Annual Excellence in Journalism Awards Gala on Saturday, July 27 at the NOPSI Hotel, placing media and public relations professionals from throughout the region in the spotlight.

The sold-out event, some of the proceeds of which will fund three college scholarships in journalism, was hosted by New Orleans native PJ Morton, a Grammy Award-winning musician and a graduate of St. Augustine High School.

Of the 81 total first place awards doled out in print/writing, television, radio, photography, videography, digital, and public relations, WVUE-TV accrued 18, the most of any media outlet, while WWL-TV and WDSU-TV won 10 and six awards, respectively. Among print publications, The Advocate garnered seven collective awards, followed by and the Crescent City Jewish News with five each. Lee Zurik of WVUE-TV and Alan Smason of the Crescent City Jewish News were the two individuals who raked in the most awards, as both earned five awards.

The highlight of the evening was the special recognition of two of the city’s outstanding journalists, who were bestowed with Lifetime Achievement awards.

One of the two Lifetime Achievement awards went to the late Frank Donze, who passed away at age 64 last November. Described as the dean of political reporting in New Orleans, Donze, a former board member of the Press Club of New Orleans, chronicled City Hall for the Times-Picayune from 1984 to 2012, covering five mayoral administrations in that span. He was a member of the 2006 team of journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize, and he helped to found “City Hall Notes,” a Metro column which allowed the prolific Donze to share even more of his political knowledge.

On awards night, Donze’s wife, Beth, the daughter of the sports writer Peter Finney, accepted the award on her late husband’s behalf. “At City Hall, Frank had so many plates spinning at once,” Beth Donze said, noting that he took pride in giving the public “informational deep-dives other types of media either did not or could not provide.” 

But in addition to his reputation as a writer of thorough and accessible journalism, Donze also leaves behind a legacy of mentorship. “When people ask me for help, I’ll never turn them down,” Ramon Antonio Vargas, the winner of the General News (Print) category and the Alex Waller Memorial Prize, said during a video clip before Beth Donze’s speech. “That’s a direct result of having been around Frank Donze.”

The other Lifetime Achievement Award honoree was Joe Duke, who, according to Beth Donze, her husband “truly loved.” Over the course of a long career characterized by its versatility, Duke, originally from Lake Charles, worked at turns as a photographer, reporter, managing editor, news director, bureau chief, and director of recruiting. He spent 20 years in New Orleans at WVUE-TV, WDSU-TV, and WWL-TV, as well as 12 years in New York at CBS News, and he currently teaches at the School of Communication and Design at Loyola University.

In a video montage prior to Duke taking the stage, Norman Robinson, Duke’s former colleague at WWL-TV, highlighted Duke’s sympathy for his subjects, recalling an incident in which Duke steadily filmed a fireman rescue an unconscious child from a blazing building even as tears ran down his face. “Students, what’s it all about?” Duke asked his Loyola students in attendance at the end of his acceptance speech. “The people!” one shouted out. “The people,” Duke said.

During the cocktail reception, Duke suggested majoring in English at LSU nourished his interest in human stories while also priming him for broadcast journalism. “I loved the flow of words and the way words sounded, which is why I loved Shakespeare. What was the cadence of the sentence? What was the rhythm of the sentence? It was a natural thing for me to go into broadcasting,” he explained. As for Shakespeare, Duke has a special affinity for the history plays. “I liked Richard III. I didn’t like the comedies too much.”

Though Duke might not take to Shakespearian comedy, the gala — and its festivities atop the NOPSI Hotel roofdeck following the awards ceremony — certainly resembled one. “We have a tendency, no matter how often we warn our venues, to drink them out of all their wine,” said Melanie Spencer, the president of the Press Club. “This is one of the main times of the year when we come together as a full journalistic community,” she continued. “The best part is seeing people who are so deserving get some kind of acknowledgement from their own community for the hard work that they do.”

One of the night’s biggest winners, Alan Smason, seemed flabbergasted by his success. “Wow. I am overwhelmed. I accept it with due humility. It’s a great honor from a great organization. If it weren’t for the World Scouting Jamboree, which is being held in the U.S. for the first time since 1967, coincidentally the same year I was bar mitzvahed, I would have been there with my journalistic brothers and sisters,” he said over the phone, referring to the large rally hosted by the Boy Scouts of America in Mount Hope, West Virginia.

Not everyone was as upbeat as Smason after the event, though. One runner-up, in fact, voiced his displeasure with finishing third. “I don’t like to lose,” the writer, who asked to remain anonymous, said while sipping an Old Fashioned. “Next year I’ll be back with a vengeance. I’ll rip through the awards. I’m in print, and I’ll win television. Hell, I’ll win radio, too.”